Novak Djokovic is going for the "Nole Slam."
© Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
By Matt Cronin, special to USTA.com
PARIS -- Novak Djokovic has become nothing if not resilient, but in Paris the reigning US Open champion is not displaying the same level of confidence or consistency that he showed in winning his first crown in New York last summer.
The pressure that the Serbian is under to become the first man since Aussie Rod Laver in 1969 to win four straight majors is enormous. He has not won a title on clay this season, and after taking the mighty Rafael Nadal down in seven straight finals, including at the US Open, he has fallen two straight times to the Spaniard on red dirt.
Upon arriving in Paris, Djokovic conceded that six-time Grand Slam champion Nadal was the favorite, despite the fact that he has beaten him not only in New York last year but in the finals of 2011 Wimbledon and the 2012 Australian Open.
On red clay in a place where he has only lost one match, to Robin Soderling in 2009, Nadal is nearly impenetrable, even to the tireless Serbian.
"He is always favorite for this tournament," Djokovic said. "He even was last year. Always No. 1 favorite because he's just what he is on clay courts. He's most successful tennis player ever to play on this surface. He played well in the Rome final. Even though it was straight-set win, I thought we played a close match. But he was playing better. That's what you expect from him. You can always expect him to be at his top, especially at the later stages of Grand Slams and tournaments. Here, he's going to be even more difficult to beat because it's the best of five."
Going into his fourth-round match against Juan Monaco, Nadal had only dropped 17 games, the fewest he ever has in Paris. Amazingly, he has only lost 13 sets in the 48 matches he's contested at the French Open.
But that does not mean that on clay Djokovic cannot beat him. While the 2012 season has not unfolded like 2011 did, the Serbian did hit through him in the Madrid and Rome finals last year on dirt and showed at the Australian Open that, even when Nadal is at his best or near best, he can stay with him for almost six hours.
But whether "Nole" can do it when the world's eyes are on him with every ball he strikes is an open question. When asked how he deals with the burden of expectations, Djokovic quoted former U.S. great Billie Jean King.
"Pressure is always present, and the way I look at it, it is a privilege and it's a challenge," he said. "I believe every professional athlete feels the pressure. So you need to try to understand and learn how to deal with it, and if you feel pressure, that means that you're doing something that is right, that counts. I'm happy to be where I am at this moment. I was always dreaming to become the world's best player. So there are always expectations, and obviously with different tournaments and different times of the year comes different pressure."
The 24-year-old Djokovic has not been at his best at Roland Garros, and he seriously strained in his 4-6, 6-7 (5), 6-3, 7-5, 6-3 victory over Andreas Seppi in four hours, 18 minutes in the round of 16.
It was only the third time that five-time Grand Slam titlist Djokovic had come from two sets down in his career, but he has now done it twice during his great Slam run, most notably and spectacular when he pulled it off against Roger Federer in the 2011 US Open semifinals.
He committed way too many unforced errors against Seppi and did not go on offense nearly enough. Djokovic, who arrived on tour as a counterpuncher, has shown the world that he is more than comfortable playing high-octane offense, but he pulled through against Seppi largely due to his defense and because in the last three sets he was able to win the majority of the big points.
He was not thrilled with his performance, but he felt there was no need to panic.
"I think it's just a bad day for my game, for my rhythm, in general," he said. "But, look, I won. So I don't need to be disappointed or I'm gonna be worried. I was fighting. When I was two sets down, I believed I could win the match, and I think that's the only positive I can really pick up from the match.
"I’m in the quarterfinals. That's what matters the most. That's something that gives me motivation to continue on and try to wake up hoping for a better day."
Djokovic knows that he's going to play much better in the second week than he did in the first. He’ll face French favorite son Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the quarters, and given how deeply French fans love Big Jo, he's going to have to contend with more than just Tsonga’s heavy serve. Then he might have to face Federer in the semifinals, the same man who ended his 43-match winning streak in Paris last year. Even if he wins that match, Nadal will more than likely be his final-round foe, and no one has come very close to beating the Spaniard in a Roland Garros final.
However, no player is more capable of pulling off the feat than Djokovic, who relishes challenges.
"The situation that I find myself in this year to make history if I go all the way through doesn't give me extra negative pressure," he said. "I really think it's a challenge and something to embrace and to enjoy. I'll try to go step by step. It's really too early to talk about eventually getting my hands on the trophy, but it's definitely a goal."